STARKVILLE — Mississippi State University men’s basketball coach Rick Ray has said repeatedly his team must work harder and be tougher and smarter than every opponent to consider its performance a success.
During brief portions of its exhibition game against William Carey University on Sunday afternoon, MSU accomplished all three of those items. In longer stretches, though, it did none of them, but it still earned an 80-74 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.
Ray said his team will have to address that inconsistency before it opens the season Friday at Troy University.
“I don’t know if you could be nervous about hustling,” Ray said following his first game as a college basketball head coach. “I think guys might be nervous about what to do offensively, but I don’t think you should have any nerves about playing hard.”
While playing an undersized and less athletic squad, MSU fell short in several hustle categories in front of an announced crowd of 1,472. MSU was outrebounded on the offensive glass 12-10, which helped William Carey, a NAIA school from Hattiesburg, earn a 15-12 edge in second chance points. Ray drilled that point home in a brief meeting with his team after the game.
“We have to rebound a lot more than we usually do,” MSU junior guard Jalen Steele said. “(It is important that) everybody (is) crashing the boards and really just executing everything to a T. Once we get that down pat I think we will be good.”
Steele, one of two returning players who played significant minutes last season, was 7 of 13 from the field and scored a team-high 17 points.
Wendell Lewis (seven rebounds), Fred Thomas, and Colin Borchert (eight rebounds) each had 15 points, but Ray answered frankly if he thought his team was prepared for its season opener.
“No,” Ray said.
William Carey outscored MSU 36-24 in the paint, mostly due to layups off dribble penetration by its guards. MSU also allowed 23 points off 16 turnovers, including 10 on fast-break chances.
“Defensively is what I’m most concerned about,” Ray said. “I don’t think we were the most aggressive team tonight. I felt it was a situation where we were on our heels a bit.”
Ray has said his team hasn’t fought him and his coaches as they have tried to implement new strategies, including the need to play with more effort on defense, MSU appeared a step slow to the ball.
“I’m most disappointed in the 100-0 balls, everybody calls them 50-50 balls or loose balls, but I call them 100-0 balls because we should get them 100 percent of the time,” Ray said. “Those balls and those above the rim that turned into offensive rebounds, we can’t give up offensive rebounds to a team like William Carey where we’re bigger than them. That’s my biggest concern.”
Ray barely got a chance to settle into his seat after the opening tip before William Carey scored on a wide open jumper and two layups that forced him to call a timeout.
MSU, which was picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference last week by the media in the preseason poll, trailed by as many as eight in the first half before going on a 23-10 run in the final eight minutes to take a 41-36 halftime lead.
The outside shooting of newcomers Borchert and Thomas sparked the run. Borchert, a junior college transfer from East Mississippi Community College, hit 3 of 5 3-pointers and scored all of his points in the first half.
On a team that likely won’t have a lot of depth due to defections from the previous season and injuries to key recruits, Borchert’s scoring punch off the bench was a welcome sight.
“Colin was a big spark,” Steele said. “Colin was knocking down shots we usually make.”
MSU’s bench may have gotten a little shorter. Freshman guard Andre Applewhite didn’t dress out after suffering a knee injury Friday in practice. Ray said Applewhite will have an MRI scan today.
“Once you get the results back, then the people that are more classified to talk about will tell me about it then we’ll go from there,” Ray said.
Thomas, who Ray said is going through the normal freshman development of learning the difference between a good and a bad shot, will be a high volume shooter. He averaged nearly 20 points per game at Jim Hill High School in Jackson last season. He reached double figures in 28 minutes.
“If I’m open, I’m a very confident player,” Thomas said. “Some of my shots (are) bad shots. That is what we are working on, my shot selection.”
Another positive was Lewis, the Bulldogs’ only senior, hitting six straight free throws to seal the victory. Lewis, a career 45.7-percent free throw shooter at MSU, went 9-for-11 from the line to give MSU four players in double figures.
“I credited Wendell when I met with the team because I told him, ‘Hey those free throws you knocked down were huge for us,’ ” Ray said. “If you don’t make those free throws, guys get a little tighter, and I credit Wendell for making those.”
Ray will make his regular-season debut Friday in the brand new Trojans Arena at Troy University. MSU will play its home opener four days later against Florida Atlantic University.
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